Mayor Park Won-Soon, Discusses His Background In Human Rights And Civil Activism
In May 1975 Seoul City’s new mayor, 58 year old Park Won-soon, was arrested and imprisoned for four months after joining a demonstration against Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship. He had just entered Seoul National University and was a freshman at the time of his arrest. Upon his release he was forbidden to go back to the university campus for several years. In an interview with the Global Digest on Monday 30th January he explained how his imprisonment shaped his commitment to Human Rights and civil activism. He described how his arrest began a journey that saw him win the most important non-national election in South Korea on October 26th 2011; the Seoul city mayoral race. In 1980 I passed the exam of Korean Bar Association. So I trained to be a Human Rights lawyer, very naturally. I defended many political prisoners in the 1980s and the 1990s. At that time there were so many prisoners of conscience; usually they were politicians and labourers and students, even some artists. One day in 1987, around 1400 students were arrested in one night. This meant I was very prosperous in terms of business. Of course it was free service I offered to defend them. Anyway, as a lawyer I was very busy defending the students at that time.
In 1991 I decided to study more on Human Rights, especially international situations. I set about studying for a diploma on an international course at London School of Economics from 1991 to 1992. And I also spent over one year in Harvard Law School as a visiting fellow to Harvard’s Human Rights programs. Even before that I was participating in the establishment of Lawyers for a Democratic Society, and I was playing an important role. We, Lawyers for a Democratic Society, are called ‘Minbyun’ in Korean.
And then I established People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD). According to the changing situation I was trying to focus on the participation of people in the course of decision making of the parliament and the executive and the judiciary. This was contributing to and increasing how people could participate in the ordinary course of decision making. We had many departments, for example ‘watch for congress’, ‘watch for judiciary’, ‘watch for the administration’ and so on and we were especially campaigning against corruption. We introduced many packages to the legal system to encourage transparency and add to the struggle against corruption.
And then in 2000, I established another organisation, the Beautiful Foundation, a funding organisation for the civil society. Then in 2002 I established another organisation, the Beautiful Store, which is a second hand charity shop chain. And also in 2006 I established the Hope Institute which is a think tank from the perspective of civil society. The mayor laughs when he says that “as you can imagine I was always making a new organisation. And at last I left to run for Mayor of Seoul in 2011.” His background in Human Rights and civil activism seems to have played a decisive role in his election victory. Just two months before the
election Mr. Park was regarded as an outsider. However, as an anti-establishment, independent figure he presented himself as the ‘citizens’ candidate’ and comfortably beat Na Kyung-won, the ruling conservative Grand National Party’s candidate. In the end the share of votes was 53% to 46%. The primary opposition, the Democratic Party, did not enter a candidate to run against Mr. Park. Park’s supporters claim his win is a victory for people power and reflects voters’ dissatisfaction with the current political establishment.
They argue his victory is an indication of growing disillusionment in the presidency of Lee Myung-bak which has been plagued with economic issues. Despite a healthy economy and a rising GDP there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Many feel the country’s economic gains are not being distributed fairly amongst the population. South Korea scores poorly in OECD measures of relative wealth; in 2011 the amount of South Korean households living below the poverty line exceeded 3 million for the first time and it has been reported that the country’s percentage of poor is double the OECD average. There are widespread concerns about rising living costs and declining job security; high university tuition fees and the rising cost of education; as well as youth unemployment.
Some supporters have called Mr. Park ‘Seoul’s first welfare mayor’ and he explained why social welfare is so important for the city: “I think welfare can also be integrated as one of the Human Rights. As you can imagine Korea has been very successful in terms of economic development and as a result of rapid economic development Korea has become a member of the OECD; the sale of exports is becoming so big, and we are around the tenth greatest in the world. In that sense, economic sense, we have been very successful but, I think, the growth even in economic sense cannot be sustainable without the protection of Human Rights. It also means that in Korea social welfare was relatively dismissed and in terms of the Human Development Index (HDI), recorded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Korea is still lower than other OECD countries and the welfare expenses in government expenditure are also the lowest among OECD members. In that sense I think it is very urgent for Korean society to emphasise the importance of social welfare.”
“Before the election there was a debate on the issue of social welfare, especially the universality of Human Rights idea in social welfare issues. At the time the debate was free meals for elementary and middle school students. The ruling party and the mayor were arguing that the free meals cannot be supplied, but the opposition party and the grassroots civil society were opposing them, because the free meal is one of the basic rights of all students. This was one moment to change the Seoul Metropolitan Government and also the total society. Within only a short period the ruling party has changed their attitude because they had been defeated; they found public opinion also changing, so social welfare issues are really changing Korean society in general, I can say.”
The debate around free school meals was a controversial and emotional issue for many. Mr. Park’s predecessor, Oh Se-hoon, voluntarily resigned from the post of Seoul mayor in August after losing a referendum on the subject. Mayor Park served out the remaining two years of the former mayor’s term.
Mr. Park explained that there has been a significant change in the Human Rights issues facing the country: “I think the item of Human Rights is always changing according to the change and transformation of the society. In the 1970s and 1980s the main problems in Human Rights was torture and political rights abuse. It was carried out by government with a form of systematic abuse. But since the 1990s the forms of Human Rights abuse have become very diverse, including environmental rights, right to housing, discrimination, women, all taking weight in the list of Human Rights. Especially after the late 1990s when there were so many migrant workers coming to Korean society. Nowadays even the Human Rights of the migrant workers or the immigrant women who get married to Korean husbands are becoming very important. So in that sense, nowadays there is not only the one issue but so many issues becoming aroused surrounding Human Rights.” He went on to express his regrets that Seoul and South Korea are not as multi-culturally open as they could be due to the mindset of Korean people: “They say that Korea has become a multinational or culturally diverse society but in truth I think Korea is still far from being a multicultural society because the mentality of the people, of general people, cannot be changed. The policy makers in government are still thinking and they are trying to provide opportunities for the migrant workers or the newly arrived women who have got married to Korean husbands. I think to be a really multi-cultural society we should guarantee that newcomers can enjoy their own native culture and cultural background. So I think my opinion for the newcomers is to enjoy their own culture. And also that they can survive and be independent, even economically to begin to start their own business with their own cultural background, for example Vietnamese housewives, they can begin their own restaurant, Vietnamese restaurant, or they can start up their own travel agency for Koreans to enjoy trips to Vietnam. Something like that, one small idea. In that sense I will make some experiments to make the Korean society more open to newcomers.”
He continues, “In the 21st Century I think the distinction
between the foreigners and non-foreigners has become less important. So, they can say that the United States is the country of immigrants, but I think that it is not much different in European countries. In Asia also we are becoming international societies. So in that sense I’m trying to protect and guarantee newcomers from other countries that they can enjoy, can fulfill their capacity, their potential in Korean society, especially in Seoul.”
Finally the mayor of Seoul city explained that the overarching goal of his term as mayor will be to develop a way of working that includes more people in the political life of the city: “There can be many things to change but I think the most important is to change the philosophical ground. For example, one item can be strengthening good governance – we can guarantee to have more opportunities for people to be involved in the policy making process. So in that sense I’m always emphasising to public servants, saying that we cannot do everything alone but we should cooperate with the many citizens and grassroots organisations to make our society, to make our development more sustainable, through participation, governance, and self-regulation. This is one of the main things we should focus on.”
Mayor Park Won-soon(C) with other International Mayors